The following is an excerpt from Matthew Sheffield’s forthcoming memoir, “Mystery of Godliness: My Journey Through Prophetic Mormonism”
“The Spirit of the Lord tells me that we are standing on the very spot where Adam, the Ancient of Days, gathered all of his descendants together to bless them before he died.”
My seven siblings and I weren’t really paying much attention as Dad described his latest revelation. He was standing in the grass a few feet removed from the sidewalk to the parking lot.
We were in the middle of nowhere, about two hours to the northeast of Kansas City, Missouri. Devout Mormons like us knew the area as Adam-ondi-Ahman, the place where Adam from the Bible had lived after being cast out of the Garden of Eden.
Most people who believe in the Adam story place it somewhere in the Middle East. But Mormons know the “real truth”—that it happened in northwest Missouri. It’s one of many doctrines that most people outside the faith have never heard.
That spring day in 1995, my family and I were at a park set up by the Church at the site of the historic Adam-ondi-Ahman location. As I had learned from reading Mormonism’s Doctrine and Covenants scripture, the place name derived from the pure language that is spoken by God himself which he taught to Adam and Eve.
As a 17-year-old who had never known anything else, I definitely believed the story, as did my siblings, to the extent that they were old enough to care about such things. But ultimately, the main attraction of the park for kids was not having to sit through another three hours of church. Spending a few hours frolicking on acres of beautifully manicured grass amid sunshine, flowers, and a cool breeze was a lot more fun than listening to boring sermons we’d heard a million times–there’s nothing quite like taking in the Great Plains in all their glory.
Dad had really gotten into taking excursions like our Adam-ondi-Ahman trip since he had moved us back to western Missouri. We lived in Kansas City but the real attraction for us was one of its suburbs, Independence.
Locally, the city is known as the home of former president Harry Truman—and a production hub for meth. Recently, downtown Independence has been experiencing somewhat of an economic resurgence but it’s still a work in progress.
Mormons see Independence quite differently than their neighbors though. It’s much more than a lower middle class Midwestern city, it’s the future capital of the entire world.
As we all knew, Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, had restored God’s true gospel to the Earth for the last time and Independence was destined to become the future Zion from which Jesus would rule after his return to Earth.
We didn’t know exactly when the Savior would be back but we assumed that it was just around the corner–it’s why our denomination was called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). We didn’t believe in the evangelical notion of the Rapture but we knew that wicked people were going to be burned alive any day now. As God’s chosen people, however, we didn’t have to worry about it—but only if we were “worthy.” But no one ever defined what being worthy meant, so in practice, true-believing Mormons worry even more about surviving the Second Coming.
As a child in the Church’s Primary program, I memorized the lyrics of a song called “I Wonder When He Comes Again” that encouraged kids to speculate about what they would do when Jesus returns and how they will live every moment with an eye toward missionary work:
I wonder, when he comes again,
Will herald angels sing?
Will earth be white with drifted snow,
Or will the earth know spring?
I wonder if one star will shine
Far brighter than the rest;
Will daylight stay the whole night through?
Will songbirds leave their nests?
I’m sure he’ll call his little ones
Together ’round his knee,
Because he said in days gone by,
“Suffer them to come to me.”
I wonder, when he comes again,
Will I be ready there
To look upon his loving face
And join him in prayer?
Each day I’ll try to do his will
And let my light so shine
That others seeing me may seek
For greater light divine.
Then, when that blessed day is here,
He’ll love me and he’ll say,
“You’ve served me well, my little child;
Come unto my arms to stay.”
The Mormon connection to Independence began in the 1830s, when Smith moved his entire congregation to Missouri and began threatening the locals that they had better convert or be burned in the Second Coming. In keeping with their mandate to prepare the area for Jesus’s imminent return, LDS members set up their own political machine and began using it to wield civic power in the city.
As a result, tempers flared on both sides and there were repeated violent clashes in the frontier town. Smith and other leaders were frequently jailed, and more than a few on both sides were murdered. The Mormons were eventually expelled from Missouri and moved to neighboring Illinois where they started their own city called Nauvoo.
Mormons from around the world began flocking to the new city, but it didn’t last long after Smith used his mayoral power to violently censor an anti-Mormon newspaper in the city, for which he was jailed by the state of Illinois. While still incarcerated, Smith was murdered by an angry mob and his followers scattered; the bulk of them headed to Utah with Brigham Young.
As a result of Smith’s many experiences in Middle America, Missouri and Western Illinois are filled with places just like Adam-ondi-Ahman. To Mormons of a certain disposition, America’s central region holds the same sort of mystical permanence that Israel does to many Jews—it’s a place where you can quite literally visit the scriptures. There’s an entire micro-industry of businesses, museums, and visitors centers catering to Mormons interested in seeing sites such as the former jails in Liberty, Missouri and Carthage, Illinois where Smith and some of his followers were held. There’s even a small offshoot Mormon church dedicated solely to holding onto the vacant lot that was decreed by Smith to be the future site of the temple from which Jesus will rule the world.
After we wandered around the Adam-ondi-Ahman trails for a short while (there are no playgrounds at the park), it was time to go. As all ten of us piled into the family van, Dad had another revelation.
“Family, the Lord has told me why he wanted to bring us here today. He wants to give us a special blessing!” he said.
“I now realize why God brought us to the land of Zion in the first place. We’re going to make a covenant. People who make covenants are blessed more than people who don’t. We have to go beyond just believing the truth, we have to totally live it.”
Sam, my 5-year-old brother, was looking down at the stuffed bear he’d brought with him as he sat on my Mom’s lap. We only had seven seat belts in our 1987 Toyota van so three of us always went without.
“God wants us to become a Zion family, one that will help him reestablish his kingdom here on Earth. And we’ll do it by following the Holy Ghost’s promptings at all times, growing brighter and brighter until the perfect day.”
“What does that mean?” Teresa, my 6-year-old sister asked.
“It means we are all going to promise God today that we will become perfect or be destroyed.”
I didn’t realize it at the time, but Dad was essentially asking his family to make an even more drastic version of the covenant that every Mormon adult is supposed to make in the Church’s temple ceremony which goes like this:
“You covenant and promise before God, angels, and these witnesses at this altar, […] that you do consecrate yourselves, your time, talents, and everything with which the Lord has blessed you, or with which he may bless you, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for the building up of the kingdom of God on the earth and for the establishment of Zion.”
I usually believed whatever Dad said. But at that moment, things didn’t quite make sense. Not only did it seem unlikely that human beings could become completely sinless, I was also uncomfortable with the idea of going to hell forever if I somehow managed to become almost perfect but not quite. It didn’t seem fair to me as I sat in the very back of the Toyota in the spot where most people usually put their groceries.
I was there on the floor while my older brother, Trevor, 18 at the time, was trying to sleep while he sat in front of the van’s sliding door, also on the floor.
“But how can we be perfect when Jesus was the only person who ever lived a sinless life?” I asked.
“He was the only one who ever succeeded—but that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible,” Dad replied. “The Bible says ‘be ye therefore perfect, even as your father in heaven is perfect.’”
He continued: “Remember that the Book of Mormon said ‘for I know the Lord giveth no commandment unto the children of men save he shall prepare a way for them to accomplish the thing which he hath commanded.’ And the Apostle Paul also reminded us that we can do all things through Christ.”
I didn’t know what to say in response. When you spend your whole life learning that the scriptures are entirely true in every way, the idea that some parts don’t have to be taken literally doesn’t enter into the equation. As usual, Dad’s scriptural citations were correct. I had read those very same verses during the five times I had read the Book of Mormon and the two times I had read the entire Bible.
If the scriptures said you could do everything and also said that you could become perfect, then it must somehow be possible, I reasoned.
It was also hard to argue against what Dad was saying because at the time, I really did believe that he was a prophet, and that anyone else could be as well. It’s what I’d learned in church and at home on a twice-daily basis as we read the scriptures as a family each morning and night while listening to Dad’s commentary on the verses.
Having dismissed my measly objection, Dad moved on.
“We’re not going to be the only Zion Family, just the first one, to be an example to everyone else on how to do it,” he explained.
“But it will be difficult and that’s what this covenant will do. God will give us more strength — but only if we give everything to him, even our thoughts.”
I felt disturbed and inspired at the same time.
This didn’t seem possible, but I wanted it to be. I wanted to serve God and my fellow man. The world had become so wicked and there were so many people who either rejected the truth or never knew it to begin with.
“That’s why God wants us to commit right now to Following The Spirit at all times or be destroyed. To FTS or be destroyed.”
Not everyone in the van was paying attention. Mom shouted out my brother Greg’s name as he was staring out the window and making faces.
“Get this!” Dad said curtly. “If we’re willing to do what the Lord tells us at all times, he’s going to help us become a Millennial Family. But if we don’t, then we’ll be cast down to hell.”
I didn’t believe him. It was probably the first time that I could say that about anything Dad had said.
An awkward silence hung in the increasingly stuffy air as a bunch of kids contemplated selling their souls to God.
“The Lord tells me that everyone here needs to covenant with him. ‘I promise to follow the Spirit and become perfect; if I don’t, I will be destroyed.’”
Teresa was the first to agree. Sam followed almost immediately. Both of them figured out a lot earlier than I did that telling Dad whatever he wanted to hear was the best way to get him to leave you alone.
“It’s wonderful how the little ones are the most willing to listen to the Spirit,” Dad told Mom. She smiled, nodded, and also agreed to the covenant.
One by one, everyone assented, even me. Or at least that’s what Dad thought.
“I promise to FTS with all my might,” I mumbled quickly, taking advantage of Dad’s hearing problem and everyone else’s desire to just get back home. It probably didn’t hurt that I was sitting underneath the car seat.
Neither he nor Mom noticed that I hadn’t agreed to the eternal damnation clause. I wasn’t going to argue about it, but I wasn’t going to go along with it either. Contented that he had convinced us all to sell our souls, Dad started up the engine and we headed back home.
A couple of weeks later, Mom framed a picture she’d taken at the park to commemorate the trip. She also included a copy of the words of the covenant we’d made. Notably, it omitted the going to hell clause.
I never mentioned it to her, or anyone else.